They are former and current parents. Some were teachers and staff, even school leaders. There are former directors and members of the Brindabella Christian College community.
As they stand outside the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, they have a common aim: to reform what they say is appalling governance at the school they love.
Brindabella Christian College is in the midst of a five-day hearing at the AAT. Last year, the Federal Education Minister’s delegate decided the charity that operates the school, Brindabella Christian Education Limited (BCEL), was not “a fit and proper person” to receive Commonwealth funding.
The school is challenging the finding and it’s emerged that BCEL owes the Tax Office close to $5 million in taxes. Annual reports to the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission have not been made since 2020 but appeared on the site last night, disclosing a $3 million shortfall for 2021.
An informal group working together for several years has now registered as Community for Constitutional Reform at Brindabella Christian College. They’ve engaged legal firm Adero and gone public, launching a website. Membership includes staff and parents involved with BCC from 2015 to the present.
“We absolutely support the teachers and the school, we want it to continue and be the best that can be, but we’ve come to the point where that’s not going to happen unless there’s serious reform of the constitution and the governance at BCC,” says Jodie Jayatilaka, whose sons’ enrolment was terminated after the family raised concerns with the school.
“We feel by formalising as a collective of the community, we give weight and strength to the seriousness of these issues. There’s protection in bringing numbers together and formalising gives us credibility before the regulators and the minister. We can’t be harmed any more.”
Jodie and David Stephens spoke to Region along with current parents who don’t wish to be identified. They say it’s been “a huge risk” for individuals to speak out against BCEL and its board, despite issues including the loss of eight principals in eight years.
The school’s Parents and Friends Association appears on the school’s website but no longer meets. More recently, the school has introduced a code of conduct that prevents parents from associating or speaking publicly about problems at the school.
“We have such a broad representation [in the group] over so many years, from staff, principals, directors, teachers, parents, that have been affected by this that there’s no way you could dismiss this as one or two people who are out for revenge,” says David.
Current parents believe constant uncertainty at the school affects their children.
“It’s the fact that you never quite know what’s happening at the school. You never quite know what’s going to be in the next newsletter that says something about a change in principal,” says one.
“It’s your kids coming home and saying, ‘Oh, my teachers changed, or I haven’t seen my teacher for a long time’. For me, it’s about helping establish a structure that is enduring and a broader membership that can support that.”
Jodie and David say the group is strongly focussed on governance issues at BCC, whose board is headed by longtime chair Greg Zwagjenberg.
Membership of BCEL is confined to its three directors.
“The directors now have sole governance of the school. Removal of sunset clauses and no annual electoral cycles have enabled directorships for life,” according to the ReformBCC website.
Jodie says ReformBCC members have “affirmation and love and affection for many of the teachers and the community”, but the BCEL governance needs urgent reform.
“The school is a charity, the Board is a trustee of the charity, and they have a duty to act in the best interests of the charity, so that’s what we want to see restored and repaired.”
The ReformBCC group would like the current board to resign and the BCC community to know why the Education Department found BCEL was not fit to run the school.
The group says that many parents, especially those new to the school, have little or no idea that there are such significant adverse findings, characterising the school culture as one of secrecy and control. The group notes with interest the school’s legal costs, believed to be extensive.
“It’s a big moment for the Brindabella community, for all the people who’ve been hurt and traumatised in the past, to see that there’s some restitution and some repair, some accountability, some healing,” Jodie says.
“Let’s rip the band-aid off, and let’s fix it, and do it right, and give the school and the community a chance to grow and form our kids for the future. It’s a large school, it’s got a lot of potential and it would be lovely to see that flourish and thrive again.”
ReformBCC welcomes members from the current school community and those with past associations to BCC.
Brindabella Christian College has been contacted for comment.